Friday, January 3, 2003

Miami's secondary is better than before

By Mark Long
The Associated Press

PHOENIX - Miami cornerback Kelly Jennings owes his teammates a few push-ups.

Jennings broke his left wrist just before the season, played 11 games with a cast and has been unable to take part in the secondary's ritual of doing push-ups for each dropped interception during practices and games.

He hopes the Hurricanes will forget about it. After all, Jennings is the top cornerback on a team that leads the nation in pass defense and will go for a second consecutive national title in Friday's Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. He also has helped the secondary do something few ever expected: Replace three first-round NFL draft picks and play better than its predecessors.

The defensive backs turned No. 1 Miami's biggest question mark before the season into an exclamation point.

"We knew we were going to be a good secondary," Jennings said. "We have lots of talent, and we learned a lot from those guys last year. All we needed was a chance to prove it."

Jennings, fellow cornerback Antrel Rolle, free safety Sean Taylor and strong safety Maurice Sikes got their opportunity after Miami lost its entire secondary to the NFL last April. Ed Reed, Phillip Buchanon and Mike Rumph were drafted in the first round, and James Lewis was a sixth-round pick.

The Hurricanes led the nation in pass efficiency defense and interceptions last season. Even the coaching staff expected some drop-off this season, but the four newcomers have been even better under second-year defensive backs coach Mark Stoops, one of four Stoops brothers coaching around the country.

The unit has allowed a nation-best 119.50 yards passing a game, 25 fewer than anyone else. They also have given up just eight touchdown passes and less than 10 yards per completion.

"The difference between last year's secondary and this year's secondary is ... these guys had a year to learn it," defensive coordinator Randy Shannon said. "They can snap off things and correct things just like that. Last year, Ed Reed and them would have to see it two or three times. These guys don't, because they have been in the system longer. That's the difference."

Though the current corps lacks Reed's leadership and intensity, and Buchanon's big-play ability, the group might have better athletes.

Jennings, a freshman with 25 tackles, is the smallest and fastest of the bunch. He usually lines up in one-on-one coverage against the opponent's best receiver, and he could be instrumental in covering the Buckeyes' Michael Jenkins.

Rolle, a sophomore with 62 tackles, has improved the most since last season, adding size, strength and speed. He is much more physical than Jennings, crowding the line of scrimmage often to press receivers and help stop the run.

Taylor, a sophomore with 74 tackles and a team-high 14 passes broken up, is the team's hardest hitter and best tackler. He forces fumbles, helps stuff the run and leaves receivers wary about crossing over the middle. He also has great range, especially for a 6-foot-3, 220-pound safety.

"He brings the thump," Jennings said.

Sikes, a junior with 68 tackles and a team-high three interceptions, is the experienced leader of the group, having played 30 games in three seasons.

"He's very smart," Rolle said. "He knows where everyone needs to be, and he gets us in the right positions for every play."

The secondary gets plenty of help from Miami's vaunted front seven, which when playing well, shuts down running backs and pressures quarterbacks consistently. That allows the defensive backs to concentrate on keeping tight coverage for just a few seconds.

The defensive backs' only weakness has been making interceptions. They have a combined seven of Miami's 10 INTs this season but could have had many more had it not been for drops that led to push-ups for each of them - except a cast-wearing Jennings.

"We cut him some slack because of his cast, but sooner or later, he has to get it off," Sikes said.

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